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 Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Is Programming Less Exciting Today?

As discriminatory as this is going to sound, this one is for the old-timers. If you started programming after the turn of the milennium, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to follow the trend of this post—not out of any serious deficiency on your part, hardly that. But I think this is something only the old-timers are going to identify with. (And thus, do I alienate probably 80% of my readership, but so be it.)

Is it me, or is programming just less interesting today than it was two decades ago?

By all means, shake your smartphones and other mobile devices at me and say, “Dude, how can you say that?”, but in many ways programming for Android and iOS reminds me of programming for Windows and Mac OS two decades ago. HTML 5 and JavaScript remind me of ten years ago, the first time HTML and JavaScript came around. The discussions around programming languages remind me of the discussions around C++. The discussions around NoSQL remind me of the arguments both for and against relational databases. It all feels like we’ve been here before, with only the names having changed.

Don’t get me wrong—if any of you comment on the differences between HTML 5 now and HTML 3.2 then, or the degree of the various browser companies agreeing to the standard today against the “browser wars” of a decade ago, I’ll agree with you. This isn’t so much of a rational and logical discussion as it is an emotive and intuitive one. It just feels similar.

To be honest, I get this sense that across the entire industry right now, there’s a sort of malaise, a general sort of “Bah, nothing really all that new is going on anymore”. NoSQL is re-introducing storage ideas that had been around before but were discarded (perhaps injudiciously and too quickly) in favor of the relational model. Functional languages have obviously been in place since the 50’s (in Lisp). And so on.

More importantly, look at the Java community: what truly innovative ideas have emerged here in the last five years? Every new open-source project or commercial endeavor either seems to be a refinement of an idea before it (how many different times are we going to create a new Web framework, guys?) or an attempt to leverage an idea coming from somewhere else (be it from .NET or from Ruby or from JavaScript or….). With the upcoming .NET 4.5 release and Windows 8, Microsoft is holding out very little “new and exciting” bits for the community to invest emotionally in: we hear about “async” in C# 5 (something that F# has had already, thank you), and of course there is WinRT (another platform or virtual machine… sort of), and… well, honestly, didn’t we just do this a decade ago? Where is the WCFs, the WPFs, the Silverlights, the things that would get us fired up? Hell, even a new approach to data access might stir some excitement. Node.js feels like an attempt to reinvent the app server, but if you look back far enough you see that the app server itself was reinvented once (in the Java world) in Spring and other lightweight frameworks, and before that by people who actually thought to write their own web servers in straight Java. (And, for the record, the whole event-driven I/O thing is something that’s been done in both Java and .NET a long time before now.)

And as much as this is going to probably just throw fat on the fire, all the excitement around JavaScript as a language reminds me of the excitement about Ruby as a language. Does nobody remember that Sun did this once already, with Phobos? Or that Netscape did this with LiveScript? JavaScript on the server end is not new, folks. It’s just new to the people who’d never seen it before.

In years past, there has always seemed to be something deeper, something more exciting and more innovative that drives the industry in strange ways. Artificial Intelligence was one such thing: the search to try and bring computers to a state of human-like sentience drove a lot of interesting ideas and concepts forward, but over the last decade or two, AI seems to have lost almost all of its luster and momentum. User interfaces—specifically, GUIs—were another force for a while, until GUIs got to the point where they were so common and so deeply rooted in their chosen pasts (the single-button of the Mac, the menubar-per-window of Windows, etc) that they left themselves so little room for maneuver. At least this is one area where Microsoft is (maybe) putting the fatted sacred cow to the butcher’s knife, with their Metro UI moves in Windows 8… but only up to a point.

Maybe I’m just old and tired and should hang up my keyboard and go take up farming, then go retire to my front porch’s rocking chair and practice my Hey you kids! Getoffamylawn! or something. But before you dismiss me entirely, do me a favor and tell me: what gets you excited these days? If you’ve been programming for twenty years, what about the industry today gets your blood moving and your mind sharpened?


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Wednesday, January 25, 2012 3:24:43 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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